Poland can contribute to the EU’s 55% target while solving its key problems

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Coal-fired power station in Rybnik [Hans Permana / Flickr]

Poland is lagging behind cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but diversifying its energy mix, making heating clean and increasing traffic electrification could improve emission reductions and transform the economy for the future, writes Aleksandra Gawlikowska-Fyk.

Aleksandra Gawlikowska-Fyk is head of power project at Forum Energii, a Warsaw-based energy think-tank.

Poland faces some severe challenges in its overall energy transformation. Among them are the need to diversify the energy mix, improve air quality, address high electricity and heat prices, and how to set its overall decarbonisation strategy – all costly, all urgent.

To do this, the country needs clarity in its strategy, including deadlines and funding. Despite a slow start, Poland should seek to embed its strategy in the EU-wide 55% emissions reduction target while also pursuing national, flagship projects to a number of difficult challenges in energy, heating, transport, industry and agriculture.

The set of projects proposed by Forum Energii could result in as much as a 44-51% cut in Poland’s emissions by 2030.

Poland has never been among the avant-garde of EU climate policy. Mere suggestions of the topic often encountered fierce resistance, given the lignite and hard coal-based economy and the staunch connections to mining.

Not only has Warsaw not been keen on the EU’s rising ambitions in this area, but the Union’s declared goal of phasing out coal made Poland reluctant to join the broader efforts.

However, this delay has been costly, in more ways than just money. Since 1990, Poland has cut greenhouse gas emissions by just 13% compared to the 20% EU average, and the gap is widening.

Moreover, since 2005, the base year for emissions trading system (ETS) and non-ETS targets, emissions in Poland have remained level.

Meanwhile, the challenges of modernising energy and heating systems, transport, industry and agriculture, are stacking up every year, postponing the inevitable.

To address both the current challenges and the future, Poland should implement flagship projects – diversification of the energy mix, making heating clean, electrification of transport, modernisation of industry, and restoring neutrality in agriculture – that cut total emissions, improve energy security, and transform the economy for the future, especially after the pandemic.

Forum Energii proposes flagship projects that not only cut emissions but are cost-effective, given the Polish specificity.

A change in the power sector, in the electricity mix, is estimated to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 66.6% compared to 1990, based on Forum Energii’s calculations.

This amounts to an almost full lignite phase-out – reserves are nearly depleted anyway – a significant reduction in coal usage – with realistic costs and timelines, of which supporting mines to 2049 isn’t one – and a parallel build-out of renewables.

This change is happening already, including with major state-owned companies like PGE or Orlen, which have declared they will be climate neutral by 2050. But it needs better coordination and government-wide impulse for cost-effective and efficient changes.

In heating, urgent changes are needed, too. Many systems in Poland are inefficient, heat is expensive, and then there’s the external costs, e.g., to healthcare, of smog and other toxins.

Coal burning for heat is the main pollutant in most Polish cities. Of all EU states, Poland is by far the highest user in individual furnaces, at 87%. Poles are really fed up with this, but also stuck with the high costs of changing to better systems.

Deep modernisation is necessary, actually inevitable.

This flagship project, which should result in clean heat that will reduce emissions by 48.6% by 2030 based on Forum Energii’s calculations rests on two pillars: improving the energy efficiency of buildings, and abandoning solid-fuel usage by 2030 in households while also reducing it in district heating.

The Polish government is aware of this need and declared, finally, a gradual coal phase-out in a recent draft of its energy policy.

Transport requires a multi-faceted approach to cut greenhouse gases, but electrification is the future because it enables large-scale decarbonisation.

Electric cars, buses and other vehicles (e.g. in industry) can help cut Poland’s transport-related emissions, which have tripled in the last 30 years, creating problems faced across the EU.

Poland must promote not only personal electric vehicles, but also strive to electrify public transport. Here, Poland could use its economic competitive advantage in manufacturing electric buses to help Polish cities cut emissions while also marketing the products in the EU and globally.

This flagship project of the electrification of transport won’t cut emissions below 1990 but, if all the proposed changes are implemented, they could drop by 46% in the next decade, based on Transport and Environment data.

Ambitious, yes, but absolutely essential for Poland to approach its emissions targets by 2030.

Industry in Poland has never been subject to wide decarbonisation and there is not a current strategy or even a roadmap to show the sector how to achieve lower greenhouse gases.

Clearly, flagship actions that improve energy efficiency, promote the use of less energy-intensive, components and recycled products could potentially help cut 40% off the sector’s emissions by 2030, based on NECP data.

Will all this be enough? If the flagship projects Forum Energii proposes in electricity, heating, and transport are implemented – for a change that’s inevitable and already taking place, albeit at too low a level – then Poland could cut greenhouse has emissions by 42% by 2030 – three times more, and three times faster than actual reductions to date since 1990.

The NECP in 2019 projected Poland could manage only a 30% contribution to emissions reduction. So, there’s a real chance to jump ahead.

All these efforts though demand a focus on agriculture, which in 2015 was climate neutral. Since then discussion about the sector’s emissions, much less contribution, has gone dormant.

Agriculture holds great “sink potential”, especially the land use, land use change and forestry sector. Returning to climate neutral or even net negative would go a long way to easing the pressure on the other sectors as they encounter challenges, or together raising Poland’s contribution substantially.

It’s important to note that Poland is unlikely to hit the 55% target, even with these necessary, but ambitious proposals.

However, the EU principle of differentiated but common efforts, means that a Polish emissions cut of 44%-51% with the changes outlined above would certainly be a hefty, proportionate contribution.

The energy transition in Poland is already challenging and costly, but waiting will be even more expensive, certainly in terms of money, but also in healthcare, the environment, etc.

EU climate policy is accelerating but also accompanied by a generous budget for the energy transformation. Poland stands to gain €30 billion if it seizes the opportunity.

A chance like this may not come again. The first step, though, is to agree new, higher emissions reduction targets.

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